A disturbing experience doesn’t always lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, it can enable people to reorient priorities and achieve positive results
Receiving a cancer diagnosis, losing a limb, surviving a brutal terrorist attack, outliving a child—for most of us, these events signify heart-rending loss and overwhelming grief. Even though we shirk from even imagining ourselves in such calamitous situations, life, alas, is not so benign. At some point, we will find ourselves face to face with adversity.
That negative life events typically cause immeasurable strain is recognized by both laypersons and mental health professionals; in fact, after a shattering event, some people develop “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), which is now a bona-fide psychological disorder.
However, while some people succumb to the throes of anguish, others not only bounce back but also emerge stronger. Knowing that we may be positively transformed by trauma can help us see the other side of death, devastation and destruction.
The term “post-traumatic growth” (PTG) was coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. In an article in a 2004 issue of the journalPsychological Inquiry, they define it as “positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances”. Interestingly, PTG does not merely mean a return to a person’s baseline level of functioning prior to the catastrophe; rather, it involves an enhancement of the person’s life, relationships or work. In their research, Tedeschi and Calhoun have identified five domains under which PTG typically occurs. After going through a shattering crisis, some people gain a “greater appreciation of life” and reorient their priorities according to their altered goals. Others may experience enhanced quality of relationships while some may tread on new life paths. A few people become stronger as individuals, while others feel renewed spiritually.
The authors are careful to point out that “growth does not necessarily signal an end to pain or suffering”. Even though they do not yet have the evidence to support their counterintuitive claim, Tedeschi and Calhoun hypothesize that less resilient people may be more inclined to experience PTG as stronger people have the resources to cope with tragedy better. So, more vulnerable people may experience growth as a result of “their struggle with trauma”. Among this set, some who were extroverted and more open to new experiences prior to the trauma, are more likely to experience PTG. Having a supportive network of people also promotes growth.
As most of us quiver at the mere thought of disaster, we may think that only a handful of trauma survivors can experience PTG, possibly those with extraordinary courage. However, research indicates that trauma can favourably alter the life of the average person. In 1987, MS Herald Of Free Enterprise, a passenger and car ferry, capsized shortly after leaving a Belgian port. In what was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history, 193 passengers and crew died. For his doctoral dissertation, which he describes in his 2012 book What Doesn’t Kill Us, psychologist Stephen Joseph interviewed the survivors both right after the tragedy and three years later. Expectedly, many of them showed evidence of great psychological distress a month after the incident. But, after three years, “43% said that their view of life had changed for the better”.
Even the more horrific catastrophes can serve as a catalyst for growth. In his 2012 book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity, Andrew Solomon interviews Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan who, along with his friend, perpetrated the gruesome shooting at the Columbine High School in Colorado, US, in 1999 that killed 13 people. Losing a child is unbearable, but being in Klebold’s position would make most people recoil and shudder. Yet, despite the severe shock, shame and social ostracism that Klebold endured after the tragedy, this mother feels a greater affinity to human beings. As she says: “When I hear about terrorists in the news, I think, ‘That’s somebody’s kid.’ Columbine made me feel more connected to mankind than anything else.”
Closer home, a parent of a special child says in an interview that she emerged as a stronger, bolder person after coming to terms with her daughter’s diagnosis of autism. In addition to providing her daughter with all the supporting services and stimulation she requires, she chose to leave her husband in the child’s best interests, a move she would not necessarily have made if her child was typical. Further, she feels that by caring for a special child, she has become more accepting and empathetic towards people. She advises parents in a similar situation to stop feeling sorry and explore all avenues to promote the child’s development. Sagely, she urges them to also take care of their own needs and aspirations as unfulfilled parental desires are only going to impede a child’s development.
Interestingly, one of the greatest testimonies to PTG was written even before the term was coined. Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, first published in 1946, is a glowing tribute to humankind’s inner fortitude. Even as Frankl describes the gut-wrenching ordeals of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, he is able to discern dignity among decay and perceive beauty in bestial conditions. He writes that despite “the enforced physical and mental primitiveness” that characterized life in the camp, “it was possible for spiritual life to deepen”. He feels that as long as man has a purpose or a meaning that he attaches to life, he can withstand practically anything. While the guards stripped the prisoners bare, both literally and metaphorically, Frankl evocatively says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
In his book, Frankl narrates a poignant anecdote. He was talking to a woman who was on the verge of dying in the camp. Despite knowing that death was imminent, the woman remained in good spirits. She confessed to Frankl that in her former life she had been spoiled and had not cultivated her spiritual side. Looking out of the window of her hut, she pointed to a tree, saying it was her only companion. She also admitted talking to the tree. Frankl first thought that the woman might be delirious or hallucinating. When he asked her what the tree said, she answered, “I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.”
Aruna Sankaranarayanan is director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.